How Obama Won: By Uniting Progressives and Dividing America

How Obama Won: By Uniting Progressives and Dividing America

President Barack Obama sees America as a salad bowl, where multiculturalists are free to pick and choose identities and cultures instead of sharing a unifying one — the classical melting pot concept. And Obama’s successful 2012 campaign — as sophisticated as it was when it came to micro-targeting voters — reflected his broader view. 

Instead of running a campaign based on his record or a unifying and forward-looking vision for the next four years, Obama essentially ran multiple, micro-targeted campaigns aimed at specific racial groups, scaring them into believing Republicans would take away their rights and promising them legislation on pet issues in a second term. He used the same template with women voters. He essentially united his coalition by disuniting America, one racial and gender group at a time. 

And incredibly — with the help of Obama’s “Moneyball”-esque date crunchers and geeks — it worked devastatingly well on Election Day. Obama’s progressive coalition, in what was a base election, turned out in droves, surprising Republican pollsters who had built their models on turnout levels similar to 2004’s. 

It was something Romney and Republicans could not match, which is why Obama won in the key battleground states despite losing the independent vote. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and young voters turned out in greater numbers than in 2008, and whites turned out in fewer numbers. 

In fact, Romney and Ryan got nearly three million fewer votes than John McCain and Sarah Palin did in 2008. McCain and Palin received 59,934,814 votes and Romney and Ryan received nearly 57,200,000. This is made more remarkable when one considers how Obama’s historic 2008 run fired up voters — with the mainstream media’s help — and McCain, who the Republican base did not like as well, had to run a shoestring campaign because his operation basically went bankrupt during the primary. 

Romney’s campaign did not have financial problems and was also aided by hundreds of millions of dollars worth of support from Republican-affiliated super PACs.  

The Obama campaign was devastatingly brilliant in maximizing turnout among its most liberal supporters. Their data crunchers had the campaign’s so-called “secret sauce” and were kept away in seclusion from most of the campaign team. They had data, for instance, that determined George Clooney would help them raise the most amount of money from West Coast females ages 40-49, as reported by TIME Magazine. These types of models and data-sets were used to activate and turn out members of the Obama coalition. 

But none of it could have been possible without Obama’s public pronouncements and executive actions — on an array of issues ranging from gay marriage to immigration — aimed specifically at various groups in his progressive coalition. 

Here is how Obama targeted and turned out these disparate groups. 


In 2008, Hispanics made up 9% of the electorate. Four years later, Hispanics made up 10% of the electorate. Because polls found Hispanics were less enthusiastic about Obama than they were in 2008, pollsters assumed Hispanic turnout would not reach 10%, let alone 9% of the electorate. Nationally, Obama won 71% of Hispanics to Romney’s 27%, and the Hispanic vote was critical in key swing states like Colorado, Nevada, and Florida and, to a lesser extent, Virginia and even Iowa. Hispanics helped put North Carolina in play until hours after polls were closed; many thought Romney would win comfortably by at least 2-3 percentage points.

In Colorado, pollsters estimated Hispanics would make up 10% of the electorate. They instead made up 14%. Obama won a whopping 75% of the Hispanic vote. 

In Florida, Hispanics made up 17% of the electorate, and Obama received 60%. 

Hispanics made up 18% of the electorate in Nevada and Obama received 70%. 

Asians and Hispanics combined made up 8% in Virginia — and Obama won 65% of Hispanics and 67% of Asians. 

Even though Hispanics were upset with Obama for not passing immigration reform — as he promised — Obama enacted an executive order that enabled illegal immigrants who met certain qualifications to receive temporary work permits. 

He was then able not only to demonize Romney for not supporting amnesty but also scare Hispanics into believing that if Obama were not elected, the deferred action program would be promptly taken away. And as the above numbers indicated, this strategy worked. 


In 2008, blacks made up 13% of the electorate, and even though pollsters thought blacks would not be as enthusiastic for Obama as they were in 2008, they made up 13% of the electorate again and Obama won 93% of the black vote to Romney’s 6%. In key swing states like Virginia, where blacks made up 20 percent of the electorate and Obama won 93%, the impact was felt, as Virginia was called on election night as votes from the Norfolk area, with a heavy black population, started trickling in hours after polls closed. 

Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Obama surrogates often used voter ID and photo ID laws — as they did with Hispanics — to rally blacks to Obama’s side. Attorney General Eric Holder called voter ID laws “poll taxes.” Michelle Obama compared them to Jim Crow laws. And the black voters who had become disillusioned with Obama turned out because the Obama campaign made them angry at Republicans.

In addition, many did not want to see America’s first black president thrown out of office after one term. Black voters — encouraged by Obama campaign surrogates — took Obama’s potential loss personally and went to to the polls despite not being as enthusiastic and hopeful about the country as they were four years ago. 


Asians made up three percent of the electorate but were statistically significant in states like Virginia and Nevada (Filipino voters). Surprisingly, Obama did even better among Asians than he did among Hispanics. Obama won 73% of Asians to Romney’s 26%.

The Obama campaign targeted Asians in places like Virginia and Nevada with ambassadors from those communities who were able to speak more fluently — perhaps on more than one level — with Asian voters who are tough to poll.

Compare this to the Republican establishment’s efforts at including or targeting the Asian vote, which will be even more critical if Republicans hope to win Virginia in national elections. 

On the Republican National Committee’s official coalition page, Asians did not even warrant a mention or listing. This was perhaps more egregious when one considers the Romney campaign essentially outsourced its voter outreach and turnout operation efforts to the RNC. 

Youth vote

Incredibly, even amidst staggering unemployment rates and soaring debts, voters aged 18-29 made up a greater share of the electorate than in 2008. In 2008, 18-29 year olds made up 18% of the electorate. In 2012, they made up 19%, and Obama won 60% of their votes. 

Obama often held rallies at or near universities and then immediately had volunteers help organize and bus people to early voting locations — in the states that allowed for it — to bank a continuous stream of votes. The Obama campaign used this model in places like Wisconsin (Dane County), Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina. This may explain why the 18-29 vote — often the most unreliable segment of the electorate — matched 2008’s impressive numbers despite the lack of enthusiasm for Obama among this demographic group. The Obama campaign just did a better job of continuously banking their votes early on in the election cycle so they would not have to rely on them as much on Election Day.  

Gay and lesbians

While gay and lesbian voters do not make up a significant percentage of the electorate enough to swing states, Obama used the gay marriage issue not only to excite gay and lesbian donors and volunteers but to activate his left-wing base, especially college students. Obama announced in May that he had “evolved” on the issue of gay marriage. Obama said states should still decide gay marriage, but he was personally in favor of it. Newsweek then called Obama America’s “first gay President,” and the youth vote and progressive base was energized and motivated after, especially when Obama — and his surrogates — constantly — and falsely (there is no federal right for same-sex marriage) — told them that Republicans would take away “their rights” if elected.  


Women made up 53% of the electorate, and Obama won 55% of their votes. He won nearly 70% of unmarried women. And he deliberately played up “women’s issues” throughout the campaign to activate progressive women voters. The Obama campaign played up Sandra Fluke. They had surrogates accuse Republicans of waging a “war on women.” They had celebrities like Lena Dunham record “first time” ads that compared voting for Obama to losing one’s virginity. And when Republicans attacked Dunham, Democratic surrogates accused Republicans of waging another so-called “war on women.” Since many of the women who support Obama are also minorities, the campaign was able to doubly energize them — with race and gender-specific appeals. 

Young women are more pro-life than older women, so the Obama campaign — though they made abortion a huge issue in the latter weeks of the campaign — did not focus exclusively on abortion issues. Instead, the campaign focused as much on birth control, falsely painting Romney as someone who would take away a woman’s right to contraception when Republicans were arguing that government should not force religious institutions to pay for such medical coverage. 

The Obama campaign — with the help from the mainstream media — also tied Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” and Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s comments about rape — to the Romney-Ryan ticket. Women in places like Northern Virginia were targeted with misleading flyers that said Romney and Ryan would redefine rape and not allow abortions even in the cases of rape and incest. In more urban areas — like at Metro stations in Northern Virginia — the Obama campaign put up advertisements and flyers playing up abortion, birth control, and rape issues. 

Blue collar whites

Whites made up 74% of the electorate in 2008. But white voters, especially blue collar whites, did not show up on Tuesday, and accounted for only 72% of the electorate in 2012. Romney won 59% and Obama won 39%, but this was not enough for overall victory, especially in states like Ohio and Virginia. 

The Obama campaign knew it had a problem with white voters, so they engaged a two-pronged strategy of minimizing their losses while viciously maligning and attacking Romney. They aimed to make these voters so disgusted with the Massachusetts Governor that they would stay at home, unable to stomach voting for Romney even as they disliked Obama. So while the Obama campaign used its micro-targeting efforts to energize minorities and women, they used those same tools to depress the white working class voters into not voting for Romney. And it worked. 

As Sarah Palin noted, ads like this that defined Romney as a heartless and callous plutocrat in blue collar areas in Midwestern swing states were the first impression these voters got of Romney, and it was something he could not overcome. 

Palin said once “a bell is rung by a biased media, it’s impossible to un-ring it,” and she was right. 

Philip Klein of the Examiner aptly compared these tactics to Karl Rove’s in 2004 when George W. Bush obliterated — or “Swift-boated” John Kerry before Kerry could define himself. Klein called Obama’s tactics it Swift-Baining: 

As he faced a tough reelection fight with a struggling economy and a disillusioned electorate, however, this same strategy wouldn’t work a second time. So instead, he used the Rove playbook. Obama set out to destroy his opponent, attacking Mitt Romney’s laudable private sector career and allowing his allies to suggest Romney was a felon and was responsible for a man’s wife dying of cancer. Swift-boating was replaced with Swift-Baining.

Obama, like Bush, got lucky as well. In 2004, Bush — who came from a dynastic political family and was educated at elite Northeastern private schools and the Ivy League — seemed like the more populist candidate when matched up against the elite John Forbes Kerry.

Likewise, Romney was probably the only candidate against whom Obama could even attempt to run as an outsider or as the more populist candidate. And Obama did exactly that by using Romney’s comments about the 47% of Americans who do not pay income taxes to turn off white working class voters in places like Ohio even more. 

In the short term, Obama’s tactics worked because in some of the nation’s most important swing counties, the Obama campaign did better in 2012 than 2008. According to CNN

In Florida’s Hillsborough County, home to Tampa, the Obama campaign outpaced their final 2008 tally by almost 6,000 votes. In Nevada’s vote-rich Clark County, Obama forces scrounged up almost 9,000 more votes than they did four years ago.

And while such identity and gender-based politics is a scary long-term proposition for the nation, there are vulnerabilities Democrats will have to deal with. When various interest and ethnic groups form coalitions out of political expediency, they can just as easily break apart when not glued together by something other than a candidate. The Obama coalition aptly formed around Obama — and once Obama leaves the stage, it will be tough for any Democrat to energize and activate liberals and minorities like Obama did during the last two election cycles. In essence, this could be the high-water mark of the progressive coalition, and their so-called ascendant majority may have actually started its descent on Tuesday.